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'Quantum': Plenty Of Action, Just Not Bond's Kind

Quantum of Solace opens in mid-car chase, which wouldn't be so bad if at any given instant you could tell whose car was on what side of the winding road.

Director Marc Forster, an art-house refugee, doesn't edit together the jolting close-ups with any fluidity. You know the chase is over only because something blows up.

This is followed by the credit sequence and a song called "Another Way to Die" — a nonfusion of Jack White's caterwauls and Alicia Keys' breathy soul stylings that's the worst Bond theme ever. After a start like that, it's a tribute to the film that it's pretty exciting.

In part, that's because Daniel Craig is a great, edgy Bond, with blue eyes so cold they chill and burn at once. His first Bond film, Casino Royale, was a romantic tragedy. This one is darker.

It's about the impossibility of accomplishing anything noble if you have to work within the system — stopping short of The Dark Knight, the biggest popcorn-movie downer of all time, but not by much.

Our next president might instill in us the audacity of hope and end the age of pessimistic superhero movies. But for now we must rely on the hope of our heroes' audacity.

In Quantum of Solace, 007 is an outsider who can trust no one; the British government and the CIA look the other way while a shadowy, multi-tentacled criminal enterprise installs a murderous general as Bolivia's president in return for rights to the country's natural resources. That the slippery baddie (Mathieu Amalric) works under the guise of an environmentalist is the ultimate insult: The plunderers have appropriated the vocabulary of the saviors.

Against this, Bond is icily single-minded. To hell with protocol, and with Judi Dench's M, who insists he's motivated by revenge over the death of his Casino Royale love, Vesper.

I love Dench's exquisite deadpan — her scowl contains multitudes. But I'm not sure how I feel about M as a scolding mother who dispatches agents to waylay her prodigal son and is quietly pleased when he eludes them.

What a cynical message! M has become another in a line of movie and TV authority figures who tacitly say, "Do what we both know is right, but I won't back you up. I'll put obstacles in your path."

Well, at least they're thrilling obstacles. Quantum of Solace is deliriously convoluted, one scene hurtling ingeniously into the next as Bond's impulsiveness and calculation work in tandem. If the action had any wit, the movie might have been as crackerjack as Casino Royale.

The screenwriters — Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade — take their cues from two of the best Bonds, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, but the differences are telling: The damaged-goods 007 doesn't even put the moves on the Bond girl (Olga Kurylenko), a tall drink of latte also driven by revenge.

The other, related difference is the absence of catharsis: Such villains as Robert Shaw's Red Grant and Harold Sakata's Oddjob had classic comeuppances, whereas the Quantum villains meet their fates off-screen.

It's Craig who holds it all together. My heart sank a bit when his Bond professed neither to know nor care if what he was drinking was shaken or stirred. Sean Connery's Bond was every bit as masculine-hard, but he could still reel off Bordeaux vintages; Craig embodies the new, anti-elitist Bond, the unstable toughie in a world of ever-shifting alliances, a world of neither queens nor supervillains.

He looks splendid in a tux but he's not at home in it; he's in his element when shirtless, his chest and arms so engorged he can barely sit straight. It's the body of a brooding obsessive — humorless, friendless, forsaken. He's the first Bond whose psyche is a source of suspense, and the first who makes us think, "He needs more sex."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.